Shining the Light on the Immune System – Part 4: The Microbiome and How Clean is too Clean?

We’ve been learning about our complex immune system, and we’re all set to dive into the adaptive immune response this week. But I often like to take a step back, take a breath, and look at the larger picture (like I do with my paintings). So let’s dial back for a moment before leaning into the microscopic lens to see the adaptive immune response. I felt like doing this today, because something has been stirring in the back of my mind. 

With all of the emphasis on sanitizing to prevent infection, I’ve been wondering about the long term impact that this could have on our beneficial bacteria, and even our microbiome. 

As I mentioned, maintaining whole body wellness supports a resilient immune system. Our microbiome is very important here as well.

The microbiome is made up of trillions of microbes that we pick up from the world. They’re mostly concentrated in the gastrointestinal (GI) tract, but they also live in the lungs, mouth, and other parts of the body.

The microbiome has even been called a supportive ‘organ,’ because it plays so many key roles in promoting the smooth daily operations of the human body. It stimulates the immune response, supports vitamin production in the large intestine, affects our levels of inflammation in the body, and yes, even our weight.

Recent studies show the effect that the microbiome can have on long term health. People in developing countries who live in less sterile environments, and eat mostly whole foods while spending more time around people and animals have a wider variety of microbes in their GI than those living in more developed countries.They also have lower rates of allergies and autoimmune conditions than Europe, US, and Australia. These findings support the “hygiene hypothesis” – the idea that childhood infections acquired through unhygienic contact bolster the immune system against diseases later in life.

SO, with that said, are we being too clean now?? 

We ARE in the midst of a pandemic … but should we sanitize everything with harsh alcohol-based products on the daily (or multiple times daily?) to prevent infection – especially if this goes well into 2022? 

Many people will continue to wash, spray, and sanitize away. I won’t. Why? Because alcohol-based sanitizers kill the beneficial bacteria on our skin – an important part of our body’s microbiome, which is designed to help us thrive – and they also break down the important epithelial barrier on the skin. We learned all about our barrier protection in part 1.

What’s a good balance then? That depends on your bio-individuality. For those with diagnosed immune compromise; it makes sense to minimize exposure through more vigilant hygiene while taking extra special care in supporting your immunity in other ways – whole food nutrition, exercise, and nutritional supplementation. 

Children build their immune systems through exposure to germs, and since they’re mostly learning from home nowadays, I’d stick to hand washing instead of the harsh alcohol sanitizers. If they have a very busy day in contact with a variety of people and someone just so happened to have a runny nose, then you may consider a sanitizer, or good wash up at home.

It makes sense to regularly clean common areas of exposure and transmission (bathroom and kitchen) and pay special attention to frequently touched surfaces – keyboards, phones, remotes, and door knobs – especially if someone at home is sick. But if your family is well, frequently spraying lysol or alcohol-based products at home could be more harmful than helpful in the longer term.

You may consider a couple of alternatives that I like:
:: A natural cleaning spray for your home using thyme essential oil.
I found a great recipe here: In a 16 oz spray bottle, add 1/3 cup hydrogen peroxide, 12-36 drops thyme essential oil, and 13 oz distilled water. Shake it up and spray on a surface. Let it sit for 10 minutes before wiping off. 

:: Take a look at HOCl (hypochlorous acid) – a game changer for disinfecting. HOCl is made naturally by the white blood cells in response to a pathogen and until recently; this molecule wasn’t stable enough for use outside the body. It’s highly effective as a surface disinfectant without the harsh side effects. (The only downside is that it isn’t as cost effective as the DIY solution). 

Since we’ll be at this for awhile, I think it’s a good idea to take a look at the big picture and consider how our everyday activities, like sanitizing, will have a long range effect. When we come out of distancing, we may have done a great job of preventing exposure, but will we have created other issues? Given we build immunity through exposure and human contact, will we have depleted ourselves? Will we be less resilient and less able to defend effectively? It’s entirely possible, and I do think it’s a good idea to consider a balanced approach with some healthier disinfecting alternatives for prevention’s sake.
Flow into Immune Resilience
Want to get Fall-ready? Meet us outside for the Flow into Immune Resilience Workshop September 13th. Enjoy gentle yoga, a lively discussion on immunity, and a deeply restorative meditation. It’s almost full (there’s only space for 16 of us)! Learn more, sign up, and prepare to boost your immunity. You’ll receive a bag of handmade ‘Immun-I-Tea’ for coming. 
Support Access to Naturopathic Medicine
Did you know that naturopathic doctors are not yet licensed in every state? I personally think SO much can be done preventatively at this time, and it’s frustrating to see how natural solutions are being glossed over . Wouldn’t you also like to see a more widespread preventative approach to healthcare?  make sense for everyone to have access to the health care of their choice? If you answered yes to any of the above, you may be in alignment with the movement to support licensure for NDs in Virginia.